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Breaking Bread on Erev Shabbat

I have often wished I could make bread well enough to make Challah. Challah is the bread we break on Shabbat before Kiddish, the meal we celebrate ever Shabbat after services. A full service is 3 hours long and Jews like to socialize; so it is we like to have refreshments afterwards. As a matter of fact, I have to confess that many Jews observe Jewish Standard Time (i.e. come late), but I like to go on time because I love the feelings of the service and see no need to short change myself by only being there for when the Torah is being taken out of the Arc. Of course, I have my own way of being lazy: I rarely read the scriptures when they are being read. I simply listen to the Hebrew, which I speak very little of. Nonetheless, I do my best. I always feel there is something added to the service by having it in Hebrew. Hebrew–from what little I understand of it–is such a beautiful and poetic language. Yet I have only learned a few words and grammatical structures of it.

Anyway, the bread. Though it is not really for Shabbat, I made a loaf today. It is for Mom and me to share, and possibly anyone else who comes visiting. I would love it if I could get my friend Vlad to come over. The ingredients were:

4 cups All-Purpose Flour

3/4 cups Whole Wheat Flour

2 teaspoons Salt

1 1/4 teaspoons Yeast

1 3/4 cups Water + More Water

The process is deceptively simple:

  1. You mix all the dry ingredients.
  2. You add 1 3/4 Water and mix, if necessary with your hands.
  3. If need be (and I always do), add more Water to make the bread dough moist. Mix, if necessary with your hands.
  4. Then you put the bread aside. In 15-minutes, you knead the dough again. You do this after 4 15-minute periods. Then wait 1 hour and knead again. Then wait 1 more hour, and knead one last time.
  5. Then turn the oven to 450 degrees.
  6. Grease a pan. I am not sufficiently talented as a cook to put the bread on the wrack without it coming out misshapen (real cooks can). So I simply use a loaf pan.
  7. Smooth the top of the bread with water so it will feel and look nice when you bring it out of the oven.
  8. Once the oven is heated, put the break in the oven for 35 minutes.
  9. Then take out of the oven and let sit for a while.

It is hard work. In fact, it compares being of equal difficulty as Smoked Salmon Soufflés, Eggplant Parmesan Soup, and Matzo Ball Soup. I really believe producing bread is an art form, and I think the guy who wrote the cookbook I use would agree. People only don’t appreciate freshly baked bread because once they are eaten so is the evidence of the chef’s real talent and industry.

With that in mind I will tell you one of my “bread” stories. At my synagogue Dee (a woman who has attended for years) mentioned a woman who used to go before she died who went the through the Holocaust. “She used to make these Challah breads that were like works of Art. I asked her to teach me how to make them, but she didn’t have a system. She would just mix ingredients that ‘felt’ right.” Indeed, that woman must have been a treasure. I am only sorry I never got to meet her. I did however write a story using her as one of the models, “Loaves of Love.” I admit that one of the Jews I sent the story was offended, but I did have a friend at Chabad who asked if it was a real person, and I believe someday I will find somebody who appreciates it… The generation who lived through the Holocaust is dying off, and perhaps though I have only met a few examples of it, my story will in a small way be my effort of lighting a candle on Yom HaShoah. Perhaps some day I will also be able to bake real Challah bread!

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Yet Two More School Shootings

First, I want to give my apologies about not writing about these two tragedies earlier. I am not really a journalist, but I feel like as a writer I have a special duty to speak after such tragedies. So here it goes: the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. To show our love for the children of Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, we must act. For if we do not act, our words are meaningless. No doubt that this has itself been said over and over since Sandy Hook in Connecticut. In my memory there was another such tragedy at Columbine in Colorado, though at that time these incidents were much rarer and I was in High School myself. The point is, we must act.

I myself plan to write both my senator and my house of representative member. They are Republicans, but perhaps there in one or both of them a conscience still waiting to be awakened. Also I will say a few prayers tonight. Sometimes I am forgetful about my prayers, but this time I shall try to say something about the innocent children being murdered while going to school. And I will leave this following scriptural quotation because in a sense it is so relevant to the collection of little corpses at two more schools:

Alas!

Lonely sits the city

Once great with people!

She that was great among nations

Is become a widow;

The princess among states

Is become a thrall.

Bitterly she weeps in the night,

Her cheek wet with tears.

There is none to comfort her

Of all her friends…

With their own hands, tenderhearted women

Have cooked their children;

Such became their fate,

In the disaster of my poor people…

But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever,

Your throne endures through the ages.

Why have You forgotten us utterly,

Forsaken us for all time?
Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself

And let us come back;

Renew our days of old!

Lamentations 1:1-2; 4:10; 5:19-21

Jews believe that it is possible to live in exile even while living in the Promised Land itself. So it is that perhaps as long as these shootings exist in America, the people live in exile, as described in Lamentations, with the Temple’s destruction being Lamentation’s major theme. We will rebuild our Temple with laws governing how guns can be used and who can use them… but we also need a rebirth of the soul, a recognition of the value of human beings which is the bases both of our various religious traditions and our shared civil religion.

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New Publications

I want to apologize to any fans I have because I have not written in so long. The truth is that I have been under the weather, largely due to the fact I have Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder. I won’t go into any details, but being mentally ill can cause a person to neglect the social whirl in which people are expected to take part. However, I have read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and two of three volumes (I am 150 pages into the third) of The Cambridge History of Russia. And there is more.

I have published more of The Bible According to Eve with Urlinkpublishers.com. I already had The Bible According to Eve: The Women of the Torah published. Now, available at Amazon.com, I have:

The Bible According to Eve: The Nevi’im I: The Histories: Eve in Search of Adam;

The Bible According to Eve: Nevi’im II: The Seers: Eve Supplants Lilith;

and The Bible According to Eve: The Ketuvim: Eve Struggles with God and Man and Prevails.

Each of these books break down a certain portion of the Hebrew Bible, and focusses on the stories of the women in those portions. I really believe in this “Book” and hope that somebody will pay money to read it. I also have a book coming out–it is not religious but political in nature:
Faust in Love

It is about politics and Donald Trump is a major character being debunked in the book. I consider myself rather left of center in religion and politics: not really a fan of AOC but absolutely incensed by the racism promoted by Fox network. Although I voted for Hillary Clinton above Donald Trump, in the primaries I voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary because I felt he had more character–this despite being ambivalent about “Democratic Socialism.” I genuinely like Joe Biden and voted for him, but sometimes the left pushes me farther than I want to go: I don’t understand exactly what the theory of Critical Race Theory says–I mean I don’t understand it, not that I object to it per se–and I guess I didn’t understand how anyone could want to ban Dr. Seuss or other classic kids books from the classroom.

You could argue, “Well, it is not like you are banning War and Peace?” but I believe children who read great books as kids grow up to be great readers as adults. Besides, children ought to have some freedom to choose their own kid’s books, even beyond what their parents think. I hope that doesn’t sound like I am a silly person who doesn’t understand what is going on in our nation or the world.

I am just socially a tad more conservative than the average Democrat is supposed to be–a Conservative Jew who still believes in the goodness of George Washington and the Founding Fathers besides Abraham Lincoln–and sometimes that bothers me. This is despite my firm commitment to the belief in the equality of all human beings–in the form of saying that immigrants coming to America deserve respect, as do our traditional minorities. I believe that was what Thomas Jefferson was trying to say in the Declaration of Independence. I don’t care that he didn’t always live up to it in his private life.

Cicero: the Last True Roman

Although I have longed to find the time to read Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I often wish that there were some great book about the rise of the Roman city state and Rome before Julius Cesar. Why? Because the nobility of Rome in its rise surpasses any real moral scruples it had in its decline. Yes, to read about Roman orgies and the ambition of generals more interested in power than they are in the good of Rome itself is depressing. Being a Jew, I might be ambivalent about Rome’s conversion–it transformed Rome and ultimately the West for good. I do not know if I can say–even as a Jew–that Gibbon is right that it only became worse with Catholic Christianity. At least the new faith provided Rome with a new sense of purpose that transcended gladiator games and charioteers which the masses were seduced into watching as away of anesthetizing them to the loss of their freedom. (I guess I will admit that I would not mind these sports so much if they did not involve what was nearly human sacrifice towards the participants of the games.)

As an American I claim the inheritance of two great civilizations that Europe claims also–Greece and Rome. However, I say that in 1776 our Philosopher Kings did something that had died off in Europe: created a state based on the best philosophy that they had available to them. I admit that despite America being usually compared to Rome, I have always preferred Greece. The Romans might have understood, “Captive Greece held Rome captive.” Yet Athens’ decline was simply war and self-destruction. Hellenistic Greece was Greece’s autumn rich in beautiful Art and brilliant Philosophy though it was. Rome’s strength was might and stability, and that is why its decline was slow and involved moral corruption. Yet in the Republic, though not democratic like Athens, there was a sense that nobility shown in people like Scipio Africanus and Cicero. And to be fair: are Ovid and Virgil less beautiful than Homer and Sophocles are noble? With that in mind–and I hope none of this sounds pompous–I am going to place a poem I wrote about the greatest Roman of them all: Cicero, not Brutus. I am not sure it is truly sad that Julius Cesar was assassinated but Cicero was butchered by Mark Antony because of his final acts of decrying the tyranny of a man more corrupt than Shakespeare’s plays reveal.

Cicero

I

Rome’s soul died with great Cicero,

the Republic’s last hero before it died

under Octavius Cesar and Mark Antony

who would fight to the Death over Empire.

II

Cicero would not himself outlast what

he believed in as citizen.

He would not outlive the Republic he loved.

Caught a Senator between ambitious men

the wealthy generals who would fight

for the cause of self before Rome itself,

Cicero fought to have good principles.

III

He treasured “the Good” Plato loved,

for though more of a statesman

than a philosopher he still loved the thoughts

his open mind could comprehend.

IV

Dear Cicero, was and is the guiding star

of Republics and Self-Rule of Peoples.

Dear Cicero, therefore, grant us your faith

Patriotism be based on the Love of Law.

He loved justice within the good state:

He loved decency more than Power and Wealth.

V

Cicero could have lived with both if he chose,

but chose that if there was a choice between

the Good and Death or Sensuality and Life

Cicero would always pick the former.

VI

O grant us our ultimate faith in Goodness

the Goodness of Traditions that bind

while realizing that unhappy occasions

arise that require of us we allow for innovations

to keep our basic values fresh anew.

VII

He would die before wearing a Cesar’s crown.

The laws might bend but always will bind.

Cicero was unyielding, firm,

but this made his faith glorious

he refused to give up the right to speak

against any form of tyranny.

VIII

It was freedom which had defined Rome—

the land which he loved.

I say with him: May my people live free—

or die, better a self-ruling corpse than a living slave.

IX

And sadly, without their great Cicero

Rome fell to servility, the vices sprang

from the gutters of Rome, and orgies held

for without freedom some impure souls

turn to debauchery, for it is true

the human heart is a restless hunter

and confined in a prison, it festers and rots.

X

Gladiators the Empire’s entertainment.

Yes, without Cicero Rome fell to disrepute

a brothel unworthy of the two Catos and the two Scipios,

those heroes of earlier times forgotten

who should not go unmentioned by historians

of a better sort of Roman who would die for love

of Justice, and Goodness, and the Republic.

XI

O Cicero!  A man of pride and a patriot

in the best sense of a misused word;

so often the last refuge of the scoundrel,

as many a Cesar or Marc Antony would know.

They claim to be honoring its name

with ever-increasing dreams of power.

Yet Cicero was Rome’s conscience to the very end.

When the Republic died, who cared what next?

*****

I want to add that though this sounds–perhaps–overly traditional and drawn to at least some of the “military virtues” as well as that all-important desire for freedom, I want to add a thought: Could Donald Trump be our Cesar in the sense that even though his open rancor is uglier to see than a Julius Cesar speak? Why? Because he would take American freedom and throw it away. I firmly believe that his only goal is money (and perhaps power) and he must be stopped. I know it looks as though he could not be elected again–but do we know? Hitler in his jail cell wrote Mein Kompf. At one point the German government suggested exporting him to Austria on the grounds that he was an Austrian citizen and not a German one (and indeed, though he fought in World War I in a sense, he was born in Austria). So we must find a way to really put Donald Trump in a prison cell or all may be lost… especially because–if you think about it–if he goes unpunished there will be another one. That is why I invoke Cicero, the last true Roman–he would see his country free or die.


To Read or Not to Read

When I am researching, I try to read 100 pages a day. How I do it is I read 50 pages in the morning/afternoon and 50 pages in the evening. For the longest time I did this with ease, but lately this is often difficult. Either I am busy–but this is only occasionally a problem–or I am lethargic. Lethargy? It may sound like a made-up condition, but the thing is I have anemia, a condition which can cause symptoms like insomnia and sleeping late in the morning. And I admit it with much shame–if I am not going any place, I am apt to sleep late. Yes, I may be punctual to shul and–when I had it–my job at Breakthrough. Yet give me nothing more to do than a shower and a book to read, and I seem to let things slide. More, I had COVID-19 during this Christmas, and my psychiatrist says this can produce lethargy.

Well, for a while I had problems up to COVID-19, I was having trouble managing 50 pages. Yet this week… in reading The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History, I managed to read about 75 pages a day so far… and I believe I may be back up to 100 pages again today. Of course, I am on page 552 and there are 642 pages in the book… I was planning on reading to page 575 of the book tonight after writing this Blog… however, I may have to reread part of what I just read… in the last part it may be slipping out of my mind. However, I believe I can finish the book tomorrow… either way…

I will mention one interesting thing I have learned. The Napoleonic Wars had a major effect on the America’s. The Louisiana Territory we bought from France originally (well, in terms of European powers controlling it) belonged to Spain. Yet because of the war in Europe, France had conquered Spain and in theory controlled all the Spanish territories in the Americas. In reality, though, France could barely control Spain. So it was that Simon Bolivar–though he still cut a dashing figure–also coincided with a time of Spanish weakness while fighting France–and could be one of the rebels who cast Spain out of South America. As for Portugal, because of the French invasion, the British helped its royal family leave Europe for Brazil, where it would rule until the 1880’s.

For me this last part–the influence of the Napoleonic Wars on the America’s–is perhaps the most interesting part of the book… I know this is probably egocentric, considering the United States is the land of my birth. Certainly, there were parts of the Wars that affected countries as broadly placed as England, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Spain, and Portugal outside of the Americas. Yet to find myself in world events–at least in the case of Napoleon selling the land of the Louisiana Purchase to the United States–along with the countries I first learned about in Middle School in a class called America’s Neighbors, is for me exhilarating.

Some day I hope to read about the history of Latin and pre-Latin America. I want to write about this some in two books: Living in the Looking Glass and Once Upon a Time When the World was Young. The hero and heroine of Discovering Wonderland will take America’s Neighbors in the sequel to that book Living in the Looking Glass. Though my Middle School teacher will be in the book, he will know more than he did in real life: the fruit of my labors may even exist in his having hot cacao that the ancient Mexicans (or Aztecs) drank for the children to drink side by side with the “French Blend” of our modern hot chocolate (first concocted in the 19th century). He will begin America’s Neighbors with these samples and the words, “the world of the pre-Columbian Americans is not truly dead. It even exists in the foods we eat: the potato, the tomato, and–drumroll–chocolate. Of course, our chocolate is a little different than ours, so I will let you taste both. Then we will begin with the domestication of the potato, the sweet potato, the tomato, and the cacao bean. It will only be the next class that we get to the tribal history of the early Americas, long before the Europeans came. This class is only half about the white and African people who came to populate our southern borders.”

The other book–Once When the World was Young–focuses more on the characters of Jeffry and Sally, who married because Jeffry got Sally pregnant in their senior of High School. In the book, Jeffry ends up fighting in Vietnam as a pilot while Sally stays nearby in Japan. However, when they come home, the relevant character appears changed from the loyal little brother Jeffry remembered and loved. Billie is a college student and hippie, and his obsession is studying the Amerindians. “I want to study the good stuff, not just the tragedies of the Trail of Tears and the lesser known atrocities. I want to know about the legends that made the Amerindians great, not just their military histories. Don’t get me wrong: reading about Tecumseh and Crazy Horse is great. But I want to study is their love of the buffalo, their animal totems, their mythologies, their weaving, their bead art, and everything that made the braves tick.”

Yet that is in the distant future–although I guess I am obligated to write those two books now. For now I am trying to read The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History.

To Embrace the Leper

Years ago an elderly Jew at my synagogue said of the weekly reading, “Each one of us has a portion we wish we could leave out. My portion is the portion on leprosy. I wish we did not have to read that the leper is cast out of the community.” Of course, we know the truth that the Talmud negates this law: it says that the separation of the leper from the community is for the good of the leper and not a punishment, and that the person who checks the leper until they are healed is a priest–the holiest person in the community, birth wise. Despite the mitigation of the law and the fact it is no longer practiced today, it grates harshly on the ears, and we wonder, “Surely God does not will it so.”

For me there is another law that is even closer to home, with similar reasoning behind it. Schizophrenics in the Torah merit stoning, and I have Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder. Again, in the Talmud it says that the sick deserve protection, both physical and also–in the case where somebody who is sick is to inherit money–monetary. I can claim with some pride that there are Jews–like Freud–who have made special efforts to remove the stigma on mental illness. More, I believe the Jews in my synagogue accept me fine, though there have been some exceptions.

Yet I believe there is a tradition as much a part of the Law which teaches the Jew to embrace the leper and the madman. It speaks of the mashiach himself,

He was despised, and forsaken of men,
A man of pains, and acquainted with disease,
And as one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried;
Whereas we did esteem him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was would because of our transgressions,
He was crushed because of our iniquities:
The chastisement of our welfare was upon him,
And with his stripes we were healed.

Christians will recognize this as one of the proof texts of Christianity. For Jews… for us it may refer to the Jewish people as a whole. I prefer this ladder interpretation. Because with it I may be–despite my illness–a part of the mashiach. I am not, of course, anything like the whole banana. I am a mere human being, and I can never become God. Yet when I suffer, God suffers through me. And when I feel joy, God experiences it through me. The question arises, “What about other people? Does God love only the Jews?”

Years ago I came across a Midrash. It said that God planted a garden for the sake of a Lily. Yet brambles got into the garden. God could not pull out the brambles because if God did, he would destroy the lily. Yet there was this promise–there may be other flowers which God planted in the garden which may be as blessed as the Lily to God. The Law says, “The righteous of the nations shall be saved,” and when God comes for his harvest, he may have–I believe he shall have–a basket full of Lilies.

So it is that even those regarded as stigmatized–those traditionally outside of faith, like the lunatic, the eunuch, and the leper–will be embraced and added to those traditionally regarded as saved. For that reason I will write a poem of my own:

God’s daughter given to the Jews
Is a Pale Lily blossoming rich
In faith and mitzvoth for the ones who love
The beloved bride, as the Torah is.
The Torah loves who will embracing it.

Thoughts on the Problem of Evil

In the Symphony of Creation, there is a thought about wind blessing God, which applies to the Problem of Evil, and the complicated nature of the world God works his will through,

The wind proclaims, “I will say to the north, ‘Give!’ and to the south wind, ‘Do not withhold! Bring My sons from afar, and My daughters from the ends of the earth.'” The Midrash says that when Achashverosh gave his royal feast, declaring that it should be carried out, “according to the individual wishes of each person” (Ester 1:8) a Heavenly voice proclaimed in this world it is impossible to satisfy everyone. When one sailor needs a northernly wind, another sailor needs a southernly wind, one will certainly be disappointed. However, in the World-to-Come everything will be in harmony and conflicting winds will blow simultaneously to return to the Jewish people and their homeland.

According to this quote, God works through Creation to bring about the Good, but because of conflicting interests of human beings, the Good cannot be done for every human being who deserves it. More, there are interests besides the human ones which God has to work for, too. This is an answer to those who ask, “Why is it that when the farmers need fresh water to rain on their fields, there is a draught and it rains on top of the Sea?” Unbeknownst to the humans who farm, there is a reason why the Ocean needs the water. This is a hard truth. More, a person is asked to pray for their needs despite the fact that they may not get what they ask for anyway. Yet it is key to our understanding of God that God acts through Creation and not that everything we need or want comes for our asking for it.

Yet eventually, the Good will be rewarded and the Evil punished. In the afterlife, people will at last receive the Good which they deserve. When God created the Universe, God was Pure Spirit and what became the Universe was Matter. God worked God’s will to create everything that is. God created Humankind to produce completion. This was because even with all the gorgeous plants, beautiful birds, and marvelous animals, God needed a friend in Creation: and so God made Humankind. And God really did breathe God’s Spirit into Humankind–though other animals have souls, too…

When the Universe dies, God will gather all Humankind, and they will be rewarded or punished. And even the plants, birds and animals will have their place in God’s Heaven. The Evil will be destroyed, but the Good will spend eternity with God in God’s Heaven–because to live with God is the greatest joy any Human can experience.

The Mountain that Must be Climbed

For me a book written is the Mountain from a distance which has been climbed. And for me part of the climb involves research. In contrast to my methods of writing, I have always envied authors like Dickens, who simply opened the windows to his house, so that the scents and sounds of London would waft up to him and inspire him to write… but I am not like that. I need more than inspiration to write; I need seeds to sprout from other people’s books–whether in terms of ideas or information. So it is for my two current projects, A History of Frances Westin Williams and Tales of the Firebird, I need to read The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History. Why? Because A History of Frances Westin Williams begins in Sweden, where two of Grandma’s ancestors fought on the Swedish side of the Napoleonic Wars, and for Tales of the Firebird, Napoleon played a key figure in Russian history (and vice versa). Without Napoleon there would be no magisterial War and Peace.

I put The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History down for the rest of this week and swore off work. However, it became tempting to write another Blog. I remember taking a class in Chinese Philosophy where the teacher–herself Chinese–said that Roger Ames, the great Confucian scholar and translator, told her that the reason Chinese people sometimes overlook the greatness of their philosophical tradition is that “it is like a beautiful mountain that is sometimes not appreciated if you look at it except from a distance.” I am not a Confucian by any means, but I think for me researching for books is like that. When the writing is done, the author appreciates the depth of what they have learned. Yet while learning the information necessary, it is sometimes slow going.

I long for the actual writing–its what writers love about writing–and yet I am so sure the actual research is necessary. I admit that I believe half of A History of Frances Westin Williams is finished… I typed up all Grandma wrote and have reread and written about one important book for Grandma’s biography, Heidi. The writing of the book is always a pleasure… and so, too, reading things like the complete Oz Chronicles… but the problem becomes the study of Sweden for A History of Frances Westin Williams or Russia and the surrounding countries for Tales of the Firebird… and working on these pushes back books like Oz Revisited; Jeanie and the Gentlefolk; and This Land was Made for You and Me.

How We Keep Our Rests

Periodically I have an extreme case of the lazies. Today, I am ashamed to admit something: though I read a miniscule part of The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History (pages 321-332), I have decided I am reading no more today…  I have an extreme case of the lazies, I guess… More, I shall not read this weekend, or if I do it will be one of Shakespeare’s plays (Timon of Athens) or more of The Symphony of Creation.  My mind is just worn out… it will be Monday when I try to read a sizable chunk of The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History…  My excuse is that sometimes the mind needs rest.

My excuse lies in the Torah itself. God is supposed to have rested on the 7th Day of the week and we are bidden to keep Shabbat on Saturday as Jews. In the ancient world this custom was mocked, because supposedly it proved Jews were lazy. This is in marked contrast to the modern knowledge that Jews are usually hard workers, and their momentary break in time when they do no work in the week has a rejuvenating effect on them. I listened to a bar mitzvah’s elderly grandfather read his grandson’s sermon with pride, saying, “Someday people will acknowledge that how we do our work during the week relies on how we fulfill our rests.”

In the Western world, it is now prevalent that we get two days off from work–but often for non-Jews this time is spent doing errands and getting chores done that there was no time for during the week. I admit: though I keep Shabbat, I skip Sunday School so I can do other things I could not get done during the week. Two days of prayer is too much for me. However–in my defense–we are only commanded one day of “rest” on Shabbat. The point is that in the sermon the old man read, it is necessary for the faithful that one day a week belong to God.

This weekend I will admit that Shabbat belongs to God and I will not attempt to fill time on Sunday with anything in particular… I need extra time to relax… Probably on Sunday I shall listen to some music… or, if I get bored, read Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens or The Symphony of Creation. For now, I am writing this Blog…

Prayers like Pearls

Prayer, I have discovered, is like an art form. Particularly if one of your limitations happens to be one of mine: outside of shul I happen to be unable to use a prayer book to say them. Yet I have devoted some time to prayer this week. I am not really good at it, but I went to the word documents and wrote down a prayer each day, or every other day. The prayers are not very inspired. Yet I did discover that if you pray intensely, and for other people instead of yourself, then it is like having a diamond carved out of the earth which is your soul. I hope it is not egotistical to write about it. Yet somehow the intensity of the experience mattered to me, and I… have never been a very private person.

So it was that towards the end of my praying, I wrote the following:

The devout one’s tears are like precious pearls;
like the conch shell on the beach where it swirls;
God will take up the one whose teardrops swell,
embracing these as if the heavens dwell
in God’s great ocean where he keeps His pearls.

Yes, to pray intensely is to cry… I am reminded of an I.L. Peretz story where a Jewish soul who has lived an indifferent life found three Jewish saints to make up for its own lack of merit. One of these souls is a rabbi’s daughter who refused to marry a non-Jew. This rabbi’s daughter was burnt at the stake, and she took needles and pinned her dress down so that it would not fly upwards while she died. These needles were one of the prizes that the indifferent soul took God. God expresses contempt for the gifts even as God grants the soul the right to go to Heaven.

The story is cynical, and I admit I get nervous reading it as a convert (having once been a non-Jew) but the sacrifice of the rabbi’s daughter is so moving that I ignore its flaws. The fire which burns the daughter is a purifying fire; though it would be painful to experience, it is reminiscent of the Ten Martyrs we read each Yom Kippur. We imitate the Ten Rabbis who died for the sake of the Torah while hoping–and probably expecting, given the religious freedom the United States grants Jews–that we will not be meeting their fate. This part of the ritual is my favorite part of Yom Kippur, second only to the portion regarding the Holy Priest and his preparation to going into the inner sanctum of the Temple.

Yet Jews even today are not all safe. The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh illustrates this. And there are Jews who fight by their compatriots of their peers–like Vladimir Zelensky in Ukraine. All Jews should keep these Jews in their hearts and prayers–but we should also keep non-Jews in our prayers, or we are not doing our duty. We should pray for the migrants who want to come to America. We should pray for the people suffering in Syria and throughout the Middle East. We should pray for the Chinese Uyghur population and the Tibetans living in exile from their country. We should also pray for animals–tigers, elephants, wolves, prairie dogs–so that they shall not go extinct. All of this seems like too much–and perhaps it is–and yet we should pray for these and other causes.

Then when we have prayed, we should do what we can to follow up our prayers. We should write to public representatives about the Chinese Uyghur population and Tibetans; give money to organizations like HIAS and UNHCR for refugees to the United States and abroad; become a member of the zoo, as well as give money to Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Fund and World Wildlife Fund; and perhaps work once or twice a week at the homeless shelter. Or at least, shoot for this as a goal. I also recommend a Catholic book: Something Beautiful for God, the book that discovered Mother Teresa. And of course the Jewish Symphony of Creation, which I learned about first in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets.

Johanna Spyri’s Heidi

I received a copy of Heidi when I was in grade school; it turned out, so I found out later, that it was a book my Grandma Williams read to Mom before she entered kindergarten. It was a book of a joyful little girl (Heidi herself); a taciturn but ultimately loving Grandfather; a goat herding boy named Peter; Peter’s Grandmother and an aunt of his; and the people she met in Frankfurt, including Clara, the girl she is taken to act as a companion to. Heidi is only truly at happy in the mountains, but she is the one who brings her joyfulness to both her Grandfather and Clara.

Heidi is about both the simple joys of eating browned cheese on bread with goat’s milk on the side, and about the beauty of the Swiss Alps. Though fewer people travel to see the Great Plains, reading the book reminds me how my mom loved traveling through them when I was traveling to visit my biological father (and back) when I was younger… at that age I saw little of interest in the desolate flatlands, instead listening to my radio or the tapes Dad made me of his playing (he was a clarinetist). It also reminds me of the trip we took to the Grand Canyon… I took pictures which are now lost… The Grand Canyon, perhaps, was equal in majesty to the Swiss Alps. When I was older, Mom and I went to the Ozark Mountains… and again, perhaps those rolling green hills were as lovely as the icy beauty of the Alps…

A greedy cousin takes Heidi to see Clara, who as a girl who is crippled needs a companion. Heidi does bring Clara joy–for instance, when she manages to sneak kittens into the house, and when she turns out to be a lackadaisical student for their teacher. Yet the character Heidi can only be happy in the Alps. Kept from those beauteous slopes, she grows thin and unhappy–though she is reassured that if she prays, eventually her prayers will come true–and in fact in a roundabout way they do: the doctor discovers that the “ghost” haunting the house is Heidi sleepwalking. In her dreams she dreams she is back in the Alps. So Heidi is sent back to the Alps.

Yet without Heidi, Clara is unhappy. More, she has longed to see the Alps that Heidi used to talk about. For a while, Clara is sick… but finally Clara comes to the Alps, and there Clara learns to walk. The fresh air of the Alps can, it is implied, cure any sickness. It is the naïve creed of Heidi that the optimism of the mountains that causes joy:

All things will work for good
To those who trust in Me;
I come with healing on my wings,
To save and set thee free.

It is a coincidence uncommented on that in the Bible, it is in the mountains (Mt. Sinai, for instance) that the Israelites receive the Word of God and that God is called “El Shaddai” (a God of the Mountains) and later on in Israelite history the Israelites’ enemies mistakenly believe Israel’s God is only “a God of the Mountains” and cannot defeat Israel’s enemies on the plains within Israel.

With that in mind, there is something almost holy about mountains–whether in Israel or in the Swiss Alps.

To Pray Like a Tzaddik

I have several versions of a book on my shelf: The Symphony of Creation. I first heard of it reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets. It is a book of the Universe’s prayers to its Creator. I am in the second section of the book, and I came across this portion on the portion of the Glory of the Clouds:

Aharon loved people and drew them close to the Torah. Since he loved each Jew and saw the true goodness within, he was able to plead on their behalf in the Kadosh HaKadosh on Yom Kippur. The Avnei Nezer once commented that the reason the prayers of the zaddikim are so powerful in heaven is not only due to their righteousness, but also because of their great love and concern for the people whom they pray. When a person truly loves his friend and shares his pain with all of his heart, he is able to enact miraculous on his behalf, like the greatest of the tzaddikim.

Reading this passage, I saw the limitations of my own prayers: how so often I pray for my needs and wants, without thinking of others. I also saw that I do little to draw people to the Torah in my day-to-day life since I left the Breakthrough Club (where I celebrated Jewish Holidays with the patients). It occurred to me that I rarely said prayers for my deceased Uncle Charlie, and how I might say prayers for my Grandmas and even my Grandpas… but, more, I should pray for the living… my friends (who will remain nameless); my fellow Jews at the synagogue (who will again remain nameless); and my relatives (who will again remain nameless).

This last Boxer Day (December 26, 2022) when Mom and I visited Uncle Jerry and Aunt Margaret, Aunt Margaret mentioned a man whom Mom had not remembered. Aunt Margaret said he “liked” Mom when she was much younger. I find myself wondering if this man, who I think is a widower, could be the love of Mom’s old age. Perhaps I could ask God if this is possible…

The point is, I need to pray for other people, the way this midrashim says Aharon (Moses’ brother) prayed for others. More, I am spreading the word to others that they are to pray for others, and not just themselves. More, these prayers should be followed by deeds. Perhaps if I can talk to my rabbi, I can teach another class… and if I cannot to contribute to my synagogue in some other way… I only wish I could contribute to the larger community in some other way.

The Art of Storytelling

Sometimes the ideas don’t flow when I want to write a Blog.  Every writer has writer’s block sometimes, I suppose… I had to learn to journal ideas to avoid being swamped with unworkable and forgotten ideas.  Yet there is a heart of a story that when it comes is like an inner music forming its own harmony.  There are characters, there are exotic places, and—though it is not the internal part I enjoy most—there is plot.

When I was little Grandma Alderson told me what I think of as a “simple” story: The Little Snow Girl; The Little Half-Chick; Cinderella (with three balls).  These stories, I was sad to learn as an adult, were other people’s stories first.  Yet they were stories she knew by heart before she told them to me.  So they became her stories—and my stories.

Now when I say “simple” I do not mean simplistic like Daniel Steele’s stories.  Grandma did not just go to her cupboard to get out formulas.  It is not true that children’s stories—ancient (Aesop’s Fables or Cupid and Psyche); medieval (the stories that would become the Grimm fairy tales); and modern (The Tale of Despereaux).  These stories, in their way, are as good as David Copperfield or The Overstory.  Most people don’t see it that way because they do not have Grandma’s insight.

Children exist on different levels intellectually and emotionally than adults.  I would be lying if I said that I have had as much luck selling my children’s or adolescent’s stories as my adult fiction… yet I know if Grandma had never told me orally the stories I listed, or read me the stories I later learned were edited by the Brothers Grimm (“Hansel and Gretel”; “Briar Rose”); written by Anderson (“The Ugly Duckling”; “The Little Mermaid”); compiled by Joseph Jacobs (“The Three Little Pigs”; “Jack and the Beanstalk”); Charles Perreault (“Cinderella”  and “Donkey Skin”); or the female author (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbet de Villeneuve) of that single gem (“Beauty and the Beast”). 

The perverse truth of the Grimm Fairy Tales is that they compiled 2/3 of them from female tellers, though they tended to be of the Middle Class and not—as they pretended—peasants.  However, the relative feminism of the Grimm tales for their day—when women were taught to read their Bibles but never taught how to write because it was believed there was no reason why women should write—appeals to something in me.  I know many people reject the Grimm Brother’s “chauvinism,” but I believe this is misguided… Some day I shall write about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.